Philly school buildings need nearly $5B in repairs, new report says

Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite.

For the first time in 14 years, the Philadelphia School District has assessed the state of its aging buildings, and the results are staggering: The system identified more than 12,000 outstanding repairs.

It would cost nearly $5 billion to do the work. Officials predict that they will need to spend $3 billion in the next 10 years to address urgent problems.

Because of delayed maintenance, close to three-quarters of city schools are in poor repair, and a third of all schools are in such bad shape that they are "outside the sustainable funding range." Engineers recommend that some of these be replaced or closed in the coming years.

District officials said repair or closure recommendations for some buildings were not a prediction of school closings, only a statement of building conditions.

The school system on Friday released its multiyear, building-by-building report on facilities conditions, an examination of 308 district schools, large athletic complexes, and district-owned school buildings leased to charter schools. The system took 20 months to compile the report.

Officials said they realized the $4.5 billion price was daunting. The district is in fairly stable financial shape, but officials project a deficit by 2019 that will balloon to $583 million by 2021.

“Every child should have access to a safe, healthy, and welcoming school facility that supports teaching and learning opportunities,” Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said in a statement. The facilities report “empowers us to prioritize capital projects and clearly show our existing and potential public and private partners what our infrastructure needs are and how they can help.”

City schools have good bones, but often have failing systems. In many places, classrooms are too hot or cold because of old boilers. Other schools cannot offer science labs or  modern technology because many classrooms have a single electrical outlet.

The shabby state of many school buildings impacts student learning, principals said.

At Dunbar Elementary on North 12th Street, just off Temple University’s campus, the school looks lovely from the outside: four stories, orange brick, a structure on the National Register of Historic Places, built in 1931.

But problems with the roof have meant water leaking into classrooms and other school spaces. Principal Dawn Moore said  she has lost instructional materials and had to double up classes while leaks are patched several times per year.

“We’re focused on instruction, but it’s hard when you have to relocate students because the roof is leaking,” Moore said. “We always want the students to be in a place where they feel safe and where it looks nice, and we don’t always have that.”

The school system is spending part of its current $1.1 billion, five-year capital program on putting a new roof on Dunbar, but the planned fixes to the school - budgeted to cost $1 million - will not take care of all of Dunbar’s needs. The building will still need new windows soon, and a new heating system, to say nothing of things Moore and her teachers dream about - science labs, improved kindergarten classrooms.

Under former Superintendent Paul Vallas, the district embarked on a massive capital project, building a number of schools. More recently, it has shifted focus to replacing systems inside buildings.

But it is clearly having a tough time keeping up with a mountain of needs in a system whose buildings average 70 years old.

The average school is in fair condition, but major fixes - or replacements - at a small number of schools account for a quarter of projected repair costs, the district said.

How the district pays for the repairs, and how much work it can do, is an open question.

The school system cannot raise its own revenue, though it can sell bonds to finance capital projects. It is already spending about 10 percent of its budget on debt service.

Danielle Floyd, the district’s director of capital programs, said no one wants to be in the position of deciding between funding school nurses and making necessary repairs.

“The educational program comes first,” Floyd said. “We’re going to need more money from outside. We’re going to be vocal about our needs.”

At Mayfair Elementary, principal Guy Lowery oversees a school bursting at the seams. With 1,400 students, it is one of the largest primary schools in the city.

A few years ago, the district spent $2 million on electrical work and other upgrades that let the school greatly expand its use of technology. It is also set for a $7.5 million project - an expansion to ease the overcrowding that has forced the school to use classrooms in trailers for almost two decades.

The fixes have made and will make a world of difference, Lowery said.

“Something like electricity - it might not jump out at you. But it is so critical for a modern educational program to have amenities for things like a smartboard,” Lowery said.

Upgrades like the ones being made to Mayfair need to happen on a larger scale, Floyd said.

“The things that we’re asking for are basic needs for children,” she said. “These are basic things that a public institution should provide.”